How does popular culture both reflect and influence the collective American consciousness? What does our deep interest in the supernatural and the unknown say about us as people? It’s these questions and more that M. Keith Booker sets out to answer in Superpower: Heroes, Ghosts, and the Paranormal in American Culture.
Published by University of Nebraska Press, the book touches on some of the most iconic films and television series and extrapolates what they have to say about the audiences who love them. Is Booker’s analysis well-crafted and successfully argued? Is Superpower good?
Booker’s subject matter is intriguing, not just in terms of its broad themes, but also thanks to how unexpected some of the references and ideas are. Much is made of Americans’ media consumption as affected by capitalism, which provides specific economic and philosophical grounding for the observations presented. To sum it up succinctly, Booker’s primary argument seems to be that societal relationships to magic and the supernatural in popular culture reflect both what is present and what’s missing in everyday life.
As modern capitalism affects many facets of life for the worse, viewers turn to media like The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural as a means of both making up for the lack of magic in everyday American life and of finding ways to cope with hardships. Booker does a solid job providing historical context for these assertions, as he traces patterns across both genres and audience responses to said genres.
While some of his examples are obvious (which, to be fair, speaks to the cultural impact of the works in question), others are pleasantly deep cuts that many readers will likely never have thought of from the author’s perspective before. When Booker nails the presentation of his ideas and evidence for them, he shows a finesse for writing that’s impressive.
Unfortunately, as intriguing as many of his ideas are, they’re not always presented as effectively as possible. There are times where his opinions seem to be foregone conclusions, and as such they don’t actually receive ample backing up. This is especially disappointing in passages relating Americans’ sense of longing with their economic realities under capitalism, due to how fascinating and relevant said subject matter is. By the time one reaches the book’s conclusion, it’s evident that Booker has well-researched viewpoints on the topic at hand, but he hasn’t organized his thoughts in a particularly convincing manner for the reader.
Booker’s failings in conveying his ideas stem largely from frustrating diction choices. Sentences and paragraphs frequently run long to the point of being an endeavor just to process individually, much less as portions of a larger framework. The vocabulary used can also get a bit clunky, as thoughts are expressed in a manner that, while decipherable, seems needlessly obtuse.
Even more distressing than the book’s language, however, are Booker’s lengthy asides and plot summaries of movies and television shows. He traces storylines across multiple seasons, going into a level of depth you would only expect from official guides. Unfortunately, the details provided are frequently beyond what is needed for Booker to convey his point, so large portions of the text end up feeling superfluous. In these segments you’re essentially just reading about the shows or movies without much analysis, so if the plots themselves don’t interest you then you’re going to find yourself bored.
I finished reading this book with much more thorough knowledge of several shows than I had before, but that knowledge didn’t actually supplement my understanding of Booker’s key arguments. The lengthy amount of page-time devoted to explaining multiple seasons worth of plots and characters from Heroes was particularly cumbersome to read through.
Overall, Superpower: Heroes, Ghosts, and the Paranormal in American Culture is a very mixed bag. Much of Booker’s subject matter is intriguing, as are his perspectives on it. Unfortunately, some diction and organizational problems prevent the book from being as engaging as it otherwise could be. The frequent long passages that summarize without contributing much to Booker’s argument, combined with his tendency toward foregone conclusions make Superpower a bit of a disappointing read. There is clear researching ability present and much of what Booker has to say is intriguing, but the way the information is presented is often just too tedious to read.